Positive Aspects of US Image: Issues for the New Administration to Consider

By Kohut, Andrew; Wike, Richard | Harvard International Review, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Positive Aspects of US Image: Issues for the New Administration to Consider


Kohut, Andrew, Wike, Richard, Harvard International Review


There is no doubt that the global image of the United States is not what it once was. Over the past eight years, the Bush Administration's foreign policies--Iraq, the war on terror, perceived US unilateralism--have been widely opposed, and the United States's reputation has suffered as a consequence.

But there is hope for a revival of the United States's standing in the world. For the first time this decade, favorability ratings for the United States improved slightly in the 2008 survey by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project. This rise was due at least in part to the fact that people around the world are looking beyond the Bush administration.

With the exception of countries where anti-US sentiments are especially intense, there is a broadly shared optimism that a new president will change US foreign policy for the better. As the world's lone superpower, the United States will always face challenges managing its reputation, but a close look at world opinion suggests that the new administration will have some opportunities to reverse this decade's negative trends.

Pew's surveys highlight what the new US president has to work with to improve the country's image. The polling points to five aspects of the United States's image that the next administration may be able to leverage. First, the United States continues to be admired for its respect for human rights. Despite international condemnation of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, people around the world believe the US government respects its own citizens' personal freedoms. Second, the idea of the United States as a land of opportunity endures--all around the world people continue to feel that immigrants to the United States enjoy a better life. Third, there is widespread admiration for US technological and scientific advances, even in some nations where the United States receives overwhelmingly negative ratings. US business practices also have a strong appeal, even in many parts of the developing world where the image of the United States is challenged at best. Fourth, US popular culture--its movies, television, and music--continues to find receptive audiences around the globe. Finally, any US president should bear in mind that the American people themselves remain some of the country's most effective ambassadors.

US Democracy

In addition to some modest gains in favorable ratings of the United States, there was other good news in the 2008 Pew survey: despite rising anti-US sentiment in many regions over the last few years, the United States continues to be recognized as a country that respects the rights of its citizens.

Pew asked respondents whether the governments of the United States, France, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Iran respect the personal freedoms of their people. Across the 24 countries included on the survey, the median percentage saying the United States does respect its citizens' rights was 65 percent, the highest rating among the six countries tested. France was a close second, while China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and especially Iran received considerably lower ratings.

Majorities in 16 of 24 countries said the US government does respect its citizens' personal freedoms, and there was no country in which a majority said it does not. Even in nations where pro-US sentiments are scarce, many see the United States as a place where individual rights are recognized. For instance, in Turkey, where only 12 percent expressed a favorable opinion of the United States, the lowest among the 24 nations surveyed, the percentage of people who said the United States respects its people's rights (47 percent) far outweighed the percentage of those who disagreed with this view (28 percent).

The challenge for the United States is that, while people tend to think the US government acts democratically at home, they say it does not live up to these standards abroad. Majorities in 43 of the 47 countries surveyed by Pew in 2007, including 63 percent of US citizens, said that the United States promotes democracy mostly where it serves its interests, rather than doing so wherever it can. …

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